Mr. Harvey's Neighborhood

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, May 1996 | Go to article overview
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Mr. Harvey's Neighborhood

Fish, Peter, Sunset

As the Southwest's big booster, Fred Harvey left a major mark on the landscape, especially at the Grand Canyon. Two new exhibitions in Phoenix attest to his genius

"He kept the west in food and wives," Will Rogers said. Fred Harvey did that and more. Other pioneer entrepreneurs mined the West's gold. Harvey mined its romance. In its heyday - the 1870s to the 1930s - the Fred Harvey Company was the American Southwest, transforming desert frontier into tourist paradise. If even today we cannot imagine the Southwest without desert haciendas, Navajo rugs, or Judy Garland warbling "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe," well, in large part we have Fred Harvey to thank.

This spring brings a Harvey boom. In Phoenix, two museum exhibitions highlight the company's influence on Southwestern tourism and Native American art. And from Winslow, Arizona, to the Grand Canyon, to Barstow, California, examples of Harvey's architectural legacy are being restored.


In the 1870s, as railroad tracks were laid across the continent, Harvey had his inspiration: to provide Eastern-quality hospitality to the still-wild West.

"Remember," says Diana Pardue, a curator at Phoenix's Heard Museum, "when Harvey first started out, the Indian wars hadn't been over that long. Harvey offered reassurance. Travelers could have an adventure, but they didn't have to suffer inconvenience or discomfort."

Harvey aligned himself with the Santa Fe Railroad. Trains in this era lacked refrigeration systems and dining cars, so Harvey built a restaurant every 200 miles along the Santa Fe's tracks. He opened his first Harvey House in 1876. By Harvey's death in 1901, his empire included 15 hotels and 47 restaurants - and the company was still expanding.

Harvey standards were lofty, as you learn when you visit Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls at the Arizona Hall of Fame Museum in Phoenix. When customers stepped from the train into the restaurant, they found tables set with Irish linen, and food comparable to that served in the best Eastern hotels.

Harvey's waitresses became famous, too, as any viewer of the 1946 Judy Garland musical, The Harvey Girls, will recall. These pert young women, clad in severe black and white, served as many as six trainloads of diners a day. Their reward? Seventeen dollars and fifty cents a week - and perhaps, as Will Rogers quipped, a husband. At least in legend, many of these women stayed West as ranchers' brides.

The Harvey hotels were likewise ambitious - trackside palaces in the wilderness, noted for pueblo- or mission-influenced architecture. Sadly, many of Harvey's hotels are gone now. New Mexico alone has lost El Navajo in Gallup, El Ortiz in Lamy, and the flagship of the chain, the Alvarado in Albuquerque.

But some remain, notably Santa Fe's La Fonda Hotel. After the Harvey Company took it over in 1926, architects John Gaw Meem and Mary Colter refined La Fonda's Spanish pueblo-style lines and filled its rooms with Pueblo pottery, Navajo blankets, hand-painted furniture, and Native American paintings. The Harvey Company sold La Fonda in 1968, but it still retains all of its considerable charms today.

Other Harvey hotels have found new uses. The Fray Marcos in Williams, Arizona, houses the Grand Canyon Railway Museum. The Casa del Desierto in Barstow, California, has been restored as a transportation center. Las Vegas, New Mexico, has two Harvey hotels: The Montezuma, now part of Armand Hammer United World College, and The Castaneda, where you can still buy a shot and rent a pool cue in the hotel lounge. Meanwhile, residents of Winslow, Arizona, are working with prospective buyers to restore the last-built Harvey hotel, La Posada. Says La Posada Foundation president Janice Griffith, "When La Posada was in its heyday, Winslow had the world coming to our door. We're not going to let it go down."

The most appealing concentration of Harvey buildings lies on the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

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